If I told you a story, would you believe me?
There has been lots of discussion lately about both the potential and danger of “stories”. There are those who believe that stories are a major way to foster greater support for international development, drive organizational change, or share knowledge.
Maybe, just maybe, both the detractors and promoters are overstating their case (another example of black and white thinking?).
Humans are hard-wired to tell and respond to stories and have been a major way of sharing knowledge and ideas throughout human history. Before writing and the scientific method this was possibly the only way to do this. But the way that stories work is both an opportunity and a potential problem.
Reality is complex, messy and full of uncertainties – even in your own areas of expertise and experience. Explaining this to someone else who doesn’t share your technical background or frame of reference is extremely hard. Stories can serve as a powerful way to bridge these gaps to make it easier to convey an idea from one person to another. One of the reasons they work so well is that they distil messy reality into a few individual concepts or ideas stripping out detail and nuance, and they use a familiar narrative form to explain these in a way in which the listener can easily understand, relate to their own experience and emotionally engage with.
When I learn about something I’m unfamiliar with it’s much easier if the first time I hear it, it is (over)simplified so I can grasp the main elements, and that it is explained in a way which I can relate to my own experience, or I can imagine it in terms of how it affects people (even hypothetical ones) in the real world, rather than in terms of abstract concepts. Once I’ve understood the basics, I might then be able to flesh out this basic knowledge with additional experiences or stories, through my own experimentation and experience, or through reading the literature, or through my own research. But if the door to the topic is not opened in a way which I can easily grasp, relate to and care about –then I might never get to the part where I check my sources, test my assumptions and take the issue on for myself.
Another important factor in accepting knowledge or an idea from someone is trust. How do I judge the value of information shared about an unfamiliar topic? If I’m short on time I’m likely to judge it on its plausibility and its provenance. Storytelling helps build a relationship between storyteller and listener in a way that for most people data doesn’t in that it makes a story human and it also creates a relationship between the storyteller, the listener and the idea itself in a way which is much stronger (and which requires much less learned skills) than looking at a shared data set. And the building of relationships, and of shared frames of reference are critical to maintain an ongoing and mutually supportive flow of knowledge within communities of practitioners (including for researchers!).
However it’s important for both the teller and the listener to recognize that a story is not objective reality, it’s a subjective personal interpretation. It is necessarily oversimplified, and might not even be “true”, even though it’s a good way to open a conversation and spark a potential interest in a new issue or to help explain a complex issue to a lay audience. Stories can be subject to bias both in the telling and the listening – although we are much more aware of this than of the smaller but still real biases that occur in the formulation and presentation of “objective, scientific data”. Like the use of metaphor, stories are a device to aid transfer of ideas – but are not the ideas or facts themselves.
On the one hand we don’t use stories enough to help introduce people to new ideas and to spark interest and engagement. They could be used more as a tool for experts and researchers to start a dialogue about the applications of their expertise in policy and in politics, and for politicians or advocates to engage an uninformed or weary public on public policy issues. On the other hand, responsible advocates also need to recognize that story telling is a beginning of a dialogue around an issue which needs to evolve into a more nuanced, evidence informed discussion, rather than being a substitute for it.
If I want to introduce something and get people to care about it a story is a much better place to start than an academic paper – but it would also be remiss of researchers and advocates if they didn’t try take the conversation further, and it would be equally remiss of the listener not to dig into a story that touches them to question it and understand more about what’s behind it.